Violence in video games drew a lot of controversy once upon a time, from Mortal Kombat to Grand Theft Auto. We saw the formation of the ESRB rating system around 1994, with Senator Joe Lieberman threatening to propose a federal commission on reviewing video games, because he felt rating systems were not sufficient enough.

Fast forward to 2018 and the topic is fresh in our politicians’ attention due to the recent shooting that took place at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

President Trump summoned a meeting with industry representatives to discuss the link between violent video games and real-world violence shortly after the saddening events that happened at the beginning of this year.

It seems that our political leaders are trying to pin the blame on video games for “shaping young people’s thoughts,” and they believe that “we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it.”

In reality, the media and the ESA perceived this hastily-organised meeting as a way of deflecting attention from the real problem: gun control regulations. According to the participants (the meeting was closed to the press), this was a casual talk about focusing on “more robust age restrictions” and things game developers could do to prevent violent games from getting into wrong hands.

The result is not conclusive and no pressure was made on industry leaders to change their tactics. This is good news given that there’s been enough studies on exposure to violent media to show that it really doesn’t have any negative effect on us, and most people are able to separate themselves from what’s occurring on a TV screen.

However, things may change as virtual reality adds a whole new dimension. As the technology improves, we’ll find ourselves immersed more deeply into the action. The bridge between watching your character kill someone on a screen and being the character that kills someone on a screen is becoming increasingly narrow.

Dante Buckley, the creator of VR shooter Onward, actually had this to say about violence in VR gaming (from an interview with UploadVR.com):

“Something that I’ve been thinking about lately is the ethics and the consciousness of violence in VR shooters,” Buckley said. “VR right now just doesn’t have enough power to create visuals that make you feel like what you’re doing in the game is real. It’s like you’re playing paint ball or like an advanced version of tag. But when things do start get more real for a game like Onward, or another first person shooter, there’s going to have to be a responsibility for people to consider.”

Buckley went on to point out that VR graphics are currently not powerful enough to make you realistically believe you’re in the game setting. Thus, we’re still able to separate ourselves from the action, even if we’re immersed in it. And of course, there’s the debate that even if VR does become hyper-realistic, playing these games won’t automatically turn people into psychopathic killers.

Of course, there are two things to be aware of: the use of VR as a “training tool” for people who already want to commit murder, and the possibility of hyper-realistic VR triggering or even causing PTSD-like symptoms.

For the first issue, we need to remember that the Columbine High School shooters fervently “trained” themselves in the first-person shooter Doom, going so far as to create game levels that replicated their school’s layout. The 9/11 commission noted that some of the airline hijackers had “trained” using the readily available Microsoft Flight Simulator software. So there is a precedent for the idea that people already intent on committing destruction could use VR to simulate their plans before carrying them out.

As to the second issue, Arshya Vahabzadeh M.D.(Chief Medical Officer of VR startup Brain Power and faculty member at Harvard Medical School) had this to say:

“One could postulate that if a person felt the VR experience was real, that they genuinely felt they were at risk of harm, and that they did not have a way of voluntarily ending the experience, they could experience rewiring of fear circuitry of their brain in a manner similar to PTSD. They would then perhaps have a range of PTSD like symptoms. Clearly this is an area that will need further research as immersive technologies become more realistic and widely used, and potentially abused.”

One other thing to consider is the effects on children – while adults are generally quite capable of not being psychologically influenced by violent media, children are another story. If even the most simple yet bloody games like short life were introduced in a VR format, just how much would those game psychologically damage children? Would that effect be significantly higher than for non-VR games?

In a 2017 study conducted by Jakki Bailey of the University of Texas, titled “Immersive Virtual Reality Influences Children’s Inhibitory Control and Social Behavior”, 55 children played a game where they interacted with the popular Sesame character named Grover. Half of the children used virtual reality, while the other half used a regular television set.

The study found that the children who interacted with Grover in VR saw him as “more real”, and they were more liable to imitate Grover’s actions. This indicates that immersive VR can be more influential on children’s minds than regular media exposure. Of course, we already know that children have a far richer imagination than adults, and it raises questions about children being immersed in realistic depictions of violence.

To expand on the above, let’s look at another study, titled “The Use of Virtual Reality in the Study of People’s Responses to Violent Incidents”, carried out by Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. This study looks into how people react to witnessing violence in virtual reality, to determine whether they react realistically to virtual scenarios. It’s worth noting here that virtual reality has been successfully used in psychotherapy (via exposure therapy), particularly in treatment of PTSD and other fear and anxiety inducing situations.

What the study found was that 6 of the 23 participants withdrew from the experiment during the VR exposure, finding the simulation too real to handle, and the remaining participants answered that, although they felt like stopping, they continuously reminded themselves it was simply a virtual simulation.

This suggests that, while a majority of people can separate themselves from what is happening in virtual reality, some can’t. As virtual reality becomes even more immersive, and we approach full-dive VR (total immersion of all 5 senses), we certainly do have to question whether exposure to violence in virtual reality can develop a predilection for violence itself.

It should be noted that this article isn’t intended to be in favour of or against violence in virtual reality – video games that provide logic and skill based challenges, such as “The World’s Hardest Game”, have been shown to have all kinds of benefits on cognition. Even violent video games can provide stress relief, as most people are able to separate reality from fiction. It’s the increasingly blurring line between “reality” and fiction that we need to be aware of, as VR technology becomes capable of transporting us to something that is difficult to distinguish from real life.

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